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Trinity Lutheran Church welcomes vicar
by Nick Mason
Dec 01, 2011 | 2097 views | 1 1 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vicar Jon Niebuhr began work at Trinity Lutheran Church in Carver in late August. He is pictured in the 1914 church’s sanctuary.
Vicar Jon Niebuhr began work at Trinity Lutheran Church in Carver in late August. He is pictured in the 1914 church’s sanctuary.
Vicar Jon Niebuhr and the Trinity Lutheran Church congregation in the city of Carver are enjoying a good start together.

The new clergyman and roughly 200 church members became comfortable with each other during his first three months on the job.

“It’s a very good fit,” Niebuhr said during a Nov. 9 interview in his parsonage office. “It’s a wonderful little church. People have worked very hard to maintain it. We are starting to see a little bit of growth, and we hope that will continue.”

Church leaders feel the same way about him.

“Everybody in the parish seems to like him,” said Joe Frey, chairman of the three-member Board of Elders, which oversees theological operations. “He fits in very nicely. He is a Carver County type of person. He’s very at home in this area.

“He is really prayerful,” Frey continued. “He is really into prayer. You can tell that in a person. He really believes in that.”

Niebuhr is serving as a vicar, which amounts to a one-year internship after completing two years of study at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. He is tentatively scheduled to be ordained as a pastor on Sept. 23, 2012.

Before then, the Trinity Lutheran congregation and Niebuhr will have the procedural opportunity next year to decide whether he will become the church’s clergyman permanently. Both sides now consider that a mere formality. Their mindset is on nurturing a lasting partnership and embracing a prolonged period of pastoral stability.

“We’ve made it known that our wish is that he would stay for a number of years,” Elder Hiram Grimm told the Chaska Herald. “That is what we would like to see happen. He just made the commitment that he hopes to be here for a number of years. There is nothing formal.”

Niebuhr said he and his wife, Jennifer, would be happy for him to have a long tenure at Trinity Lutheran, 407 Oak Street North. She teaches second grade at Trinity Lutheran School in Waconia. The couple has three children and a grandchild.

“With the call, we don’t make time commitments. The call itself, the Lord is involved in it, as well. There are a lot of variables in that,” Niebuhr said. “But at the same token, I could see us being here for a number of years because it’s a good fit for us.

“We like the small community feel of this church,” Niebuhr said. “This church welcomes people – it’s very welcoming to any visitor. They’ve got such a positive spirit about our church and sharing their faith with others. It’s fun to watch and very encouraging.”

Niebuhr was installed as vicar at Trinity Lutheran on Aug. 28, succeeding the Rev. Al Holthus, who was the church’s vacancy pastor for the unusually long period of three years, starting Sept. 1, 2008.

As vicar, Niebuhr can perform all pastoral functions except marry couples. He can participate in an assisting role during a wed-ding ceremony but cannot pronounce couples to be married until he is ordained as a pastor, based on state law. Holthus returned to Trinity Lutheran to officiate at one wedding since Niebuhr’s arrival.

“If any other weddings come up, it would be a combination of the two of us or we would make accommodations for it by having an ordained pastor work in combination with me or just come in and do the service,” Niebuhr said.

Holthus now is Visitation Pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Chaska, ministering to the homebound, residents of nursing homes and hospital patients.

Holthus was preceded at Trinity Lutheran by the Rev. Holger Sonntag, who was pastor from July 1, 2004 until his resignation on July 31, 2008.


Niebuhr, 52, who grew up in Norwood Young America, is starting his third career as a clergyman.

He was a prison guard for 17 years in the Minnesota Department of Corrections, rising to the lieutenant’s level of corrections of-ficer. He also was a part-time firefighter for five years during that span.

His second career was as a full-time firefighter in Faribault for seven years before an on-duty shoulder injury required surgery and prevented him from returning to active duty fighting fires. He declined to accept a desk job and retired from the fire department in July 2009 to head in a new direction.

“The Lord had other plans for me,” Niebuhr said.

Niebuhr applied and was accepted at Concordia Seminary under the “alternate route” program that requires two years of theo-logical training instead of the traditional three years needed to obtain a Master’s of Divinity degree.

“The normal process is a man spends two years on campus, then one year somewhere across the United States in a vicarage,” said the Rev. Dr. Lane Seitz, president of the Minnesota South district of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. “It’s like an internship under the supervision of an ordained pastor. Then he goes back to the seminary for one more year.

“Under the alternate route, they spend two years on campus and because they are not pursuing a Master’s of Divinity degree and do not have to write a Master’s thesis, they finish the course in two years and are assigned to a congregation somewhere in the United States,” Seitz explained. “When the 12 months finish, the congregation would extend the call and they become the resident pastor.”

The Missouri Synod is a conservative branch of the Lutheran church, but not the most conservative one, Seitz said.

“I would say we are biblically conservative,” he explained. “I would say we consider the Bible to be verbally inspired and the inherent word of God. Others would question parts of it. We base our doctrine and practice on the word of God.”

Niebuhr’s assignment to Trinity Lutheran was based partly on geography in that he was a resident of the Minnesota South district when he enrolled at Concordia Seminary. The fact that Niebuhr’s family is long-time friends with Seitz was helpful, too.

“Since he came out of the Minnesota South district, I have first dibs on him if he wants to come back to the Minnesota South dis-trict,” Seitz said. “When it’s time for a man like Jon to begin serving his vicarage, the folks at the seminary contact me and ask if there are places where he could serve.

“I look at congregations looking for a pastor,” Seitz said. “I ask them if they are interested in this particular candidate. I provide limited information about him, and they have the ability to contact him directly.”

The elders chose Grimm to interview Niebuhr.

“I was selected to talk to him, kind of do a phone interview,” Grimm said. “Things just worked out very well. He was the type of person we were looking for. He grew up in Norwood Young America, so it’s kind of getting back to his home area.

“He is a very optimistic person, saying he would visit with people, go out and talk to people in the area, just being a mission-minded person,” Grimm said of Niebuhr. “He’s very energetic. He also is compassionate and friendly.”

Seitz recommended Niebuhr to Trinity Lutheran’s elders and congregation.

“They were ready to call an ordained pastor, thinking of a seminary graduate,” Seitz recalled. “I’ve had such good success with the alternate route program. So I said: ‘What about this alternative? It gets you this man for a year. You can see how he fits before you have to make a decision.’”

Seitz and the elders encouraged the congregation to choose Niebuhr. The congregation vote was unanimous.

“He possesses very good people skills. He’s very conscientious. He is outreach-minded,” Seitz said of Niebuhr. “I just felt this congregation would be a good fit.”

“He is very down-to-earth and level-headed,” Elder Leon Goetze said of Niebuhr. “He doesn’t come on to any person that he meets that I’m better than you or I’m a vicar. He treats everybody as a human being and that we are all level and the same in the sight of God.”

The congregation offered a compensation package including a salary, free housing in the church’s parsonage at 216 Fifth Street, and a mileage allowance for Niebuhr’s use of his personal vehicle.

Niebuhr accepted.

Niebuhr seemed relaxed during most of a 90-minute interview, but he appeared uncomfortable when asked to describe himself.

“Good question. I don’t know,” he began, sitting back in his chair while further considering his response. “I like to believe that I lead by example. I like to believe that I lead by working alongside people, and that is the example our Lord gave us in the Bible, working along with his disciples.

“That, at least, is what I’m trying to do,” Niebuhr continued. “Whether it’s working or not, you would have to ask the people in my church. That is my goal.”


His first sermon in Carver showed that he wants to work with his congregation to spread word about Trinity Lutheran Church and recruit more members while also spreading the Gospel.

“The very first sermon I preached here at my own installation was [titled] ‘It’s Not About You,’ ’’ Niebuhr said. “That is a reminder to me that whatever happens, it’s not about me doing it. It’s about all of us sharing in the Lord’s work.

“The Lord has blessed me with a vision and the people to do that and the ability to see where we could be,” he said. “With a little bit of work and a lot of prayer, we could be where they want to be.

“It’s the mission of all of us as Christians to reach out or else the Gospel doesn’t get shared,” he said. “That includes reaching out to families with young children, it includes the empty-nesters, it includes everybody.”

Niebuhr is getting help from the Rev. Paul Biebighauser, pastor of Christ Victorious Lutheran Church in Chaska. Seitz assigned Biebighauser to be Niebuhr’s supervisory pastor during his vicarage.

“We have weekly meetings at 9 a.m. Monday to talk about things. He previews all my sermons,” Niebuhr said. “If I have any questions, I can call him. If he has any advice, he gives it to me. It’s more mentor than anything else.”

Niebuhr said he and Biebighauser learned they share a passion for golf. Niebuhr also enjoys deer hunting and playing guitar.

“I don’t have one,” Niebuhr said of a golf handicap. “I guess mine is not having enough time to play golf.”

Biebighauser estimated he spends three to four hours per week communicating with Niebuhr in person and via phone conversa-tions, e-mails and text messages.

“He hasn’t needed much assistance,” Biebighauser said. “He prepares wonderful sermons and I review those before he preaches them. I never have to make any changes to those.

“The other aspects of the ministry, I’m mainly just a sounding board for him to use as a resource,” Biebighauser said.

Asked for a sounding board example, Biebighauser cited a case where he offered suggestions about how Niebuhr might help two congregation members resolve a conflict.

“He recognized that he needed to address the conflict for the health of the congregation,” Biebighauser said. “We discussed vari-ous approaches he could take before he met with the two individuals. He then successfully dealt with the situation.”

Biebighauser is happy for Niebuhr, his wife and the Trinity Lutheran congregation.

“I just think the congregation and the Niebuhrs are blessed,” he said. “It looks to be a wonderful fit. They are blessed to get a wonderful servant in Jon and Jon and his wife, Jenny, are blessed to get such a loving and caring congregation.”


Much of Niebuhr’s plans focus on growing the church, which he views as inevitable because Carver has grown rapidly. Its popu-lation nearly tripled in the past decade, according to the federal census.

“We are going to grow,” he said. “There are lots and lots of new families in Carver and we need to convince the people up on the bluff to come to the more historic part of town.”

He intends to boost church membership by building relationships with the general public and specific groups in what amounts to a church marketing campaign.

For example, two weeks after his installation, Niebuhr walked in the Carver Steamboat Days parade Sept. 11 and handed out 800 pocket-sized note pads with church information printed on the front cover. That was an early effort at raising community aware-ness about the church.

He met first with Carver Fire Chief Dan Meyer and then with other fire chiefs throughout Carver County to offer his time and ef-forts to become chaplain of their fire departments.

Niebuhr is working on revamping and expanding the church’s website,, by adding photographs and more information to make it more appealing to current and prospective parishioners. He said he hopes that task is completed before Christmas.

In 2012, Niebuhr plans for the church to host a “Block Party” in May offering food, games for children, music and ministerial outreach to the entire community. That will be followed by a family-oriented Halloween party.

“Hopefully, it won’t be quite so much work and we can have some fun, too,” Niebuhr said. “There is joy in ministering. There has to be joy in ministering, or why would we do it?”

His efforts are appreciated.

“We don’t have a school like St. John’s in Chaska, so getting young families to come to our church has been difficult,” Elder Frey said. “He is implementing things to reach out to the community. His attitude is completely positive.”

As recruiting actions bear fruit and the congregation grows, Niebuhr said there will be discussions about adding a second ser-vice on Sunday mornings. Typically, there currently are 50 to 60 people attending a service, although it has spiked as high as 80 people during his tenure. He said the number would need to climb to about 120 to warrant a second service.

“When we grow to a certain point, we will talk about how we integrate a second service on Sunday morning and what the format will be,” Niebuhr said.

That is a shared goal.

“We could be a lot larger,” Elder Goetze said. “We feel there is a lot more people out there who could be attending church with us. I really can’t put a number out there. If we can fill every pew for every service or go into a second service, God willing, that would be wonderful.”

While devoting much attention to the big-picture goal of growing Trinity Lutheran, Niebuhr finds satisfaction in ministering to individuals. He concluded the interview by sharing thoughts of trying to comfort a terminal cancer patient.

“Sometimes it can be most rewarding,” he said. “That might be the moment the Lord has chosen for you to be there and making a difference.”
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Jorden Niebuhr
January 16, 2012
Great guy. Come and visit him and see what he has done.

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